PGR Poster Conference

Poster Presentation small

Yesterday was the annual University of Birmingham PGR Poster Conference. Although only in my first year and with no research conclusions yet, I thought I would enter with a poster showing some of the difficulties when starting out in research. It was well received with lots of good questions from some of the 400+ visitors in the afternoon. There were 120 entrants althogether and some very interesting and quite thought provoking works.

My poster highlighted what started out as an attempt to develop a ‘coding’ strategy for data capture, but rapidly morphed into a need for ‘coping’ strategies to deal with the masses of unstructured data I had found.

I had three main reasons for choosing Cleobury Mortimer as the area for my study:

  • I live in one of the local parishes and chair the local History Society so have a keen interest.
  • The second reason piqued my interest. The area is very rural in nature and was much unchanged from the late 18C to the late 19C. It is as far from the county town of Shrewsbury as it is possible to get and despite being almost as close to Birmingham, there was little influence of that proximity, or to the cradle of the Industrial Revolution at Coalbrookdale. There was a small number of influential landowners and farming had a disproportionate influence: farmers were the magistrates, guardians, ratepayers and employers. Unlike very other market town in Shropshire, Cleobury Mortimer did not grow throughout the 19C. This provides therefore, a very well defined and stable area to study over a long period.
  • My third reason was that there is a great number of available records.

And that has become a problem – how to deal with so many. I read in one thesis that long runs of accounts were rare, runs of vestry and guardians’ minutes even rarer – and concurrent runs almost unknown. I have concurrent runs for over 70 years!

As you can see from the poster, the number of records is very large and unwieldy. My intention had been to transcribe and then analyse the detail, but this would be too onerous, taking hundreds of hours, even though a good deal of the records (accounts, outdoor relief and applications books) are well structured and lend themselves to creating a database.
The minutes are even more of a problem. For the first half of the period, applications are highlighted, but there is still some wordy detail. For the second half, though, after the clerk was caught embezzling, the new clerk changes the way decisions were recorded. There is no longer a record of applications and whilst certain decisions are recorded they are buried in the administrative detail. It would be necessary first to read and highlight the relevant passages, before coding them for a database.

We then come to the thousands of unstructured documents, which give us a fascinating insight into how things were, but have a tendency to create rather more mysteries than are resolved.

I had hoped for a complete set of records spanning my period. The lack of accounts after 1841 and the lack of application detail after 1861/2 make comparison more difficult since we have very different sets of records for different periods. For the period prior to the Poor Law Amendment Act, there is a lot of individual detail, but only for four out of 17 parishes. After the formation of the union, full detail only exists for four years, good detail for another 20 years and then only extra-ordinary detail.
What I now need to do is to examine each set of data and consider the characteristics carefully, before determining what to do to analyse it. I need to decide whether to sample the data – for which I need a rationale – or to transcribe and analyse the whole set.

I have three concerns:

  • coping with the amount of data and not getting bogged down or distracted too much – coffee and cake only goes so far (though wine helps!)
  • can I extract enough meaningful information from the early detail
  • is it valid to draw conclusions from disparate sets of data and relate them to the whole period

The next stage in dealing with the original sources is to define the sets and document a strategy for dealing with each. For example how to sample, or ways in which to research outwards from some interesting case. I then need to identify ways in which the outcomes can be tied together, In so doing, I will create a methodology which is both specific to this particular study, but with scope to be used by others presented with similar situations.

In the context of getting an overall picture, I believe it is still valid to cover the whole period – it is just that the underlying evidence will be of different forms. Of course, that itself may be suggestive of attitudes towards the poor themselves.

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